Hiking boots make me feel ROAR. In their thick brown leather I am strong and competent and invulnerable. I feel this especially when I wear my boots out of context, like the other day when I stomped around town in them. The boots were too big to fit into my bag so I wore them instead, and it felt great. It’s not often I remember that I’m a man. That’s usually something that just hums along in the background like white noise. But as I stomped to the train station in my hiking boots last week I definitely felt like a man. The main guy in Jupiter Ascending has a pair of man-boots too.
Mine might have special grippy soles with their own brand name but the boots of Caine, played by Channing Tatum, can make him hover. Yes, that’s right: the Wachowskis have introduced hover boots into cinema. Add them together with the rest of Caine, which includes muscles, pecs, a growl, violence, and supreme competence—and you have almost an archetypal man. A Hollywood hero. His blue-soled power pumps are an embellishment because this is sci-fi and we can do these sorts of things.
Caine’s boots are an integral part of his character. Like mine when I’m hiking. I am almost incapable without them. They improve my body. They’re far tougher than my own soft-soled tootsies. For Caine, they are his means of transport too. In olden films, cowboys were independent because they had horses. They answered to nobody because they could always just take off. Caine can literally take off. He’s got hover boots! Cowboys of course had their own boots, and these high-heeled pointy-toed flamboyances have become integral to the image of the cowboy. I definitely wanted a pair of cowboy boots when I was a kid. I lived in Arizona for a while as a 19-year-old and I nearly bought myself a pair (but by this point they were in fashion so I settled for a Stetson instead).
There is something special about boots, isn’t there? Boots are manly and they make a man who wears them feel manly. It’s like they’re forged in a fire and marinated in Old Spice. ROAR.
One of the first outings I took my boots on was to a rainforest in the Olympic National Park in Washington State in America. Bears roam through the trees in this place and some of the trails are many miles away from a road or a bin let alone a shopping mall or a KFC. I went alone. I hiked down into the forest and pitched a tent and made my tea on my camp stove. I sat on the floor beside the stream, my knees pointing to the starry sky above the trees and my body zigzagged, completed by the full stop of my sturdy boots. My brain and my eyes had done the navigation but my feet had done the walking. And they would have been useless without the boots. What boots! What competence!
On other treks they’ve carried me across snow, rivers, volcanic ash fields, up mountains and through swamps. In these boots I am more than I could ever be alone. And yes, I can’t help but feel that I am, also, more of a man. As a feminist and a queer I know I should be above this man-stuff. Gender is socially constructed and all that. I get that. I believe it. But sometimes it feels so good to be a man. It feels crappy too, because I know that to feel capable and competent and self-sufficient you don’t need a penis. You just need the boots, and anyone can have the boots.
Six years ago, when I was trying on my boots in the shop, a German woman on the bench beside me confided, “You know, when I was a little girl I always wanted a pair of Meindl boots, and today I’m going to get them.” I felt a rush of love for this stranger in an outdoors shop. Good for you, I thought genuinely. We tried on our boots together and tramped across the little gravel pool in the shop and we felt great. I won’t stop a woman wearing boots like mine just because they make me feel like a man. She looks just as good and just as strong in the hiking boots as I do. The difference, I guess, is that somehow I know that these attributes are seen as male attributes, so many people will unconsciously see me being capable in my boots and think better of my maleness than if they saw me whirling around to Kate Bush.
The German woman will never get those extra points from other people. This is all a bit crappy because although I know that I’m really the same person when I whirl as when I trek, I feel I’m something extra when I’m trekking in the boots. The point is that with my feet locked into their leather I am a man for sure. I can stomp and trek and slash through virgin rainforest. The truth is that in my boots I’M BATMAN.
Batman is a man who wears makeup, of course. He’s caked in the stuff. He doesn’t just line his eyes, he sinks them in what is basically black paint. He goes all out and lathers half his face in it before pulling on his rubber mask. Isn’t it funny how you never see him between removing the mask and his makeup? You never see his caked-up eyes, sad and unprotected. You never see how far beyond the edge of his mask’s eyehole he slaps his slap.
If I were making a Batman film that’d be one of the things I’d be sure to include. Batman is supposed to be vulnerable, isn’t he? His character can only go to new depths if we see him slapping his slap. I just don’t know where he finds the time between spotting the bat signal and roaring down the road in the Batmobile to do his makeup, but as most women know you just have to make the time.
The thing about Batman is that his makeup is really just an extension of his mask. However, in Jupiter Ascending, Caine’s makeup is its own thing. That’s right: not only does Caine wear anti-gravity footwear he also makes sure that before he goes out saving space princesses he draws a black line around his eyes. What a stud! His eyeliner is far less ostentatious than Jack Sparrow’s, but you always got the feeling that Jack’s was more the result of a drunken dare than anything else.
With Caine, the eyeliner is part of his manly image. Tatum manages the inconceivable: he has pointy ears and eyeliner and yet he is the manliest, straightest, reptile-bashing, princess-saving space elf in the universe. Much like his ginger goatee, Caine’s eyeliner doesn’t appear to serve a practical function. It does serve an emotional one though. He looks more commanding, I guess. And poor Caine needs all the help he can get. He’s a lowly soldier and a half-breed. He is not worthy of even touching the princess he saves. But the eyeliner elevates him a little—just a little bit more than his hover boots could ever manage. He’s as smart as an Egyptian pharaoh.
Those ancient kinds knew that a streak of kohl around the oval of a bloke’s eye makes him look majestic and important. But it is makeup! How can we look at it in this way on a man in 2015? How can it be that the filmmakers have portrayed their all-male action hero in eyeliner?! Caine’s eyeliner is rebellious, right? Well, actually he’s a rebel, a runaway and his own boss—all comfortably male attributes in Hollywood. So at the same time the line under his eyes is merely the latest dash in a very long line of competent film men. He looks strong and cool, and every man knows that he’s supposed to look strong and cool. We are supposed to be competent above all else. We’ve got to be able to do stuff. The crush of competency—this is what a space elf feels when he stands in front of his mirror every morning and drags the pen once more across the folds just above and below his eyelashes as he prepares to step into his hover boots and face another day.
I too feel the crush of competency. My current job doesn’t involve saving princesses from space reptiles, and I don’t get to wear my Stetson, but I do have people who expect me to perform. I have to deliver. I want to be good at my job because my work has my name on it, and many more people than my colleagues see my name on it. I don’t wear eyeliner in the office or when I’m out and about swapping business cards, but there is a performance in my work. So I want to be good at it and I have to be good at it.
Sometimes I think I’ve got nothing. I’m a journalist who is supposed to pitch story ideas to his editor at 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon and… and I’ve got nothing. Better think of something quick. Better look like I’m worth the slightly higher salary they’re paying me than the junior reporters. I need to at least pretend to be better than them. I need to be better than just worth my salary because I’ve been there longer than the others. I wonder whether quickly jotting a dash of biro under my eyes before an editorial meeting might in fact help. Argh, the crush of competence. It is a straitjacket, a submarine, an airlock. At least when I go walking at the weekend and I wear my boots I can feel good about being able to match the contour lines on the map to the lay of the land under my nose. Then I am competent. Then I am a man. I do wonder whether I’d feel even better if I wore eyeliner.
Since watching Jupiter Ascending, I’ve been thinking: if I were a space elf, would I wear makeup? Caine’s character is so flimsy in all other respects that we have no idea what’s motivating him to save princesses let alone apply his makeup. Maybe, if the Wachowskis get to make another Jupiter Ascending film they’ll take the time to explain. At the moment the story of where the eyeliner fits into his character is left up to the imaginations of fan-fiction writers who must be hacking out their own reasons. Caine the muscly space elf is getting ready to hover onto the stage at the universe’s hottest drag club in a jewel-dripping frock as Magic Michaela when he’s called away on Operation Rescue Princess. “I wanted a night with the queens,” he tuts to himself…
I’m not sure why I feel manly in boots, even normal boots that can’t upset gravity, but not in makeup. It just seems like an awful lot of effort. I don’t generally like to spend much effort on looking a certain way. There is something manly both in looking like part of a group (the lads at my school all had to have the same kind of Kickers shoes) and, at the same time, in being your own boss and rebelling against the group. This is the tightrope walked by emo people, isn’t it? Their whole thing is about being anti-mainstream, but of course they have created their own mainstream.
Emo kids and skater boys can’t get their hands on hover boots so some of them wear little canvas pumps instead. These sneakers play a more prominent part in the emo costume than shoes used to, partly because when I was young these kids used to wear baggy jeans but now they have to be skinny. So the shoes are no longer concealed by giant hems.
I saw a prime specimen last night in a temporary bar called Temple of Doom that had taken up lodgings in some kind of brick warehouse in Leeds.
The bass player in the band wore delicate eyes and a peaceful disposition. A backward baseball cap kept his greasy hair out of his business. His tight jeans stuck to his tapering legs all the way down to the little light canvas pumps on his feet. He had knotted the white laces together into perfect bows. The white rubber strips that acted as a kind of skirting board to the shoes were clean and bright. The man in the pumps did not stamp his feet; he placed them softly where he needed them, whether onto a guitar pedal or the rough wood of the temporary stage. The precision in the angle he struck with his foot to depress his guitar pedal was the same as that of a ballet dancer.
Here was a young man plucking his bass, thrashing his head when it came to it, and screaming. But his feet mesmerised me. His feet seemed so vulnerable and so incompatible with the male rage that was being spat from his mouth and bashed out of his band’s instruments. I pictured the pinkies inside, and knew that he kept his toenails clipped. His vulnerabilities—his canvas pumps and his glum eyes—are light-years away from those of Caine the space elf in Jupiter Ascending. I’ve no doubt that the bassist is also “complicated”, which is how Caine is described in the film. I suspect the bassist and Caine are complicated in different ways.
The bassist shows his vulnerability, in fact he flaunts it. That’s what his little canvas pumps are for. Kurt Cobain and plenty of others have shown how hardcore music isn’t just modern man’s hunting—both an expression of manhood and a way to impress people. They’ve shown that it is an art, which is always a person telling their story, their truth, their vulnerability. This is what the bassist is doing. This is where Caine falls down as a character. He is so flimsy. We know so little about his motivations and his vulnerabilities. It is why, despite the eyeliner and the pointy ears, he fits perfectly into the crusty stereotype of a Hollywood bloke. Strong, competent, growly—boring. Me Caine, me save space princesses, ugg!
And yet it must be this character, this man who I feel like when I stomp around in my hiking boots? Even though I don’t necessarily like him, I watch him zipping around in anti-gravity, helping people, looking muscly, shooting ray guns and there is a part of me that wants to be him. Jupiter Ascending is of course ridiculous and absurd and based on boring old fairytales. Although I may be able to keep my distance from all that, the film still has a grip on my bootlaces. It threatens to yank me off my feet any second and say, Ha ha, you really do want to be this kind of man!